A Guest Post on Jane Austen by former writing coach client Caroline Doherty de Novoa
At Jane Austen’s house, you certainly get what you came for. A tiny wooden writing desk… a view onto a rose garden… a quill. A dainty tea set… books with gold-lettered spines and peacocks emblazoned on the front… embroidery. A turquoise and gold ring… bonnets… dresses. A gold-handled, thirty-inch sword from the liberator of South America… letters… a pair of… Hang on, back up a minute. A gold-handled, thirty-inch sword? From who, again?
Wandering through the narrow rooms and creaking corridors of Jane’s home in Chawton, Hampshire—weaving between a coach group of retired American ladies on tour, a gaggle of bookish twenty-somethings on the tamest bachelorette weekend in history, and several Chinese tourists dressed in full regency outfits—one phrase was churning over and over in my mind, something a writing tutor once said to me.
‘It’s all rather domestic, isn’t it?’
That had been his reaction to a plot I’d come up with during an ideas generation exercise in class. He’d said “domestic” with clear disdain and then scrunched up his nose, like a baby eating a lemon for the first time, to really drive home his point.
At parties, when new acquaintances find out I’m a writer, they often ask what kind of books I write. There are five books on my shelf with my name on the cover—two novels and three anthologies with other writers. So you’d think, by now, I’d know how to answer the question. But I still get nervous, and I often start to mumble.
I usually wave my hand dismissively and say something like ‘just, you know, women’s commercial fiction, that’s all.’
For some, this isn’t really an answer, and they probe further. ‘Women’s fiction, what’s that? What are the books about?’
So I try again. ‘The first novel’s a love story, but it’s also about grief. The main characters both lost their mothers at a young age and they’ve dealt with it differently. It asks the question of how much we need to confront the past before we can move on from it. And the second is about motherhood—why some women don’t want kids and others want them so desperately they’ll go to any lengths to have them, and how much that decision affects your identity.’
Usually, at this stage, the person who has asked me about my work nods politely and changes the subject.
It’s all rather domestic, I think. Who can blame them for not wanting to hear more?
I am a writer at a time when the world is seeing one of the greatest migrations of people fleeing conflict since World War Two, when climate change is threatening our planet and millions go hungry every day. In recent years, girls have been systemically kidnapped in Nigeria and shot on their way to school in Pakistan. Women still make up only one fifth of the US House of Congress. I grew up in Northern Ireland and I’ve lived in Colombia, two countries that aren’t strangers to conflict. I studied political science at university. My dissertation was a feminist critique of the criminal justice system.
So why did I spend the past three years of my life writing a book with motherhood as its central theme? It’s all rather domestic, isn’t it? Shouldn’t I have been writing about something bigger, more serious, more political with a capital P?
When I sit down to write, I sometimes feel like one of the modern derivatives of a Jane Austen character… Bridget Jones. In the first film, as she gets ready for a party, Bridget reminds herself to “circulate, oozing intelligence” and to start conversations with sentences like “Isn’t it terrible about Chechnya.”
But, thing is, whilst I care about Chechnya—right now, I care very much about the abhorrent persecution of the LGBT community there—I’ve never been drawn to write fiction about Chechnya or any “big issues” like that.
I wonder if Jane ever felt the same way.
So back to that sword. It was my hawk-eyed husband who noticed its provenance first. He’s Colombian, and so it came as a surprise to see the name of Simón Bolívar—El Libertador, the man who helped secure Colombia’s independence from Spain—on the wall in Jane Austen’s Hampshire home.
It’s an impressive piece of craftsmanship, with a finely carved hawk and cannon for a handle. It’s just a shame Jane never got to see it. Bolívar presented the sword to her brother, Charles John Austen, in March 1827, ten years after Jane’s death. Even so, it’s an interesting reminder of what others were doing, and what was happening in the world, whilst Jane sat at her desk writing.
Jane was born the same year the American War of Independence broke out. When Jane was eighteen, her cousin Eliza’s husband was guillotined during the French revolution. Her brothers, Francis and Charles, fought in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, both of which raged throughout most of Jane’s adult life, keeping them away from the family for long periods.
Virginia Woolf, writing about Austen and her contemporary, Walter Scott, noted that “neither of them in all their novels mentioned the Napoleonic wars.” Woolf goes on to claim that this shows “their model, their vision of human life, was not disturbed or agitated or changed by war. Nor were they themselves… Wars were then remote…”
Winston Churchill seemed to have the same opinion. Of Jane’s characters he remarked, “What calm lives they had… No worries about the French Revolution, or the crushing struggles of the Napoleonic wars.”
I personally don’t believe for a second Jane lived such a tranquil life or that she was oblivious to the suffering and dangers faced by those off at war. I am sure she spent plenty of tense afternoons in the drawing room with the other ladies of the house trying to occupy themselves with reading and embroidery and tea—all the while silently watching the door, wondering if the men they loved would ever return.
It’s true, as Woolf notes, Austen never heard the cannon’s roar for herself. But there are references to the military and military men throughout Austen’s novels. Of course, Austen never takes us to the battlefield in her writing. Instead, her stories are played out in the rooms and gardens of country houses, on a stage that is all rather domestic.
And yet her stories endure. It is these stories of everyday human emotion and social interaction that the British, including Woolf and Churchill, returned to during the chaos of the First and Second World Wars. It is these domestic stories that millions still turn to today.
After we left Jane Austen’s home, we walked up the country lane to Chawton House, the “Great House” where Jane socialised with her brother Edward and his friends. I imagined Jane making that same short journey following a day of writing. And I imagined her walking along the lane, steeling herself for the inevitable question, ‘So what are you writing about?’
Perhaps in such moments she prepared herself for the party in the same way Bridget did, by having an intelligent comment with which to quickly change the subject. Perhaps something like: ‘Isn’t it terrible about France?’
Caroline Doherty de Novoa is the author of the novels The Belfast Girl and Dancing with Statues and the essay collections Was Gabo an Irishman? Tales from Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia and Cocktails with Miss Austen – Conversations on the world’s most beloved author.